Gratitude and falling forward have been her tickets to success
Merrin Dungey, UCLA TFT's orientation alumna honoree, weighs in on making it in Hollywood
By Noela Hueso
Merrin Dungey knew at an early age that she wanted to be an actress. As a young girl growing up in Sacramento, Calif., during the 1970s, she and her older sister, Channing, regularly audiotaped episodes of Charlie’s Angels so they could memorize the lines before hopping on their bikes to act out the scenes.
“We were huge TV people,” Dungey says. “My mom had to buy us each our own TV Guide Fall Preview every year; we combed through it and talked about what we were going to watch.”
Years later, as a first-year English major at UCLA, she performed in one-act plays at the School of Theater, Film and Television, becoming the first freshman and non-major nominated for a UCLA Acting Award, part of an eponymous end-of-school-year event that took place annually in the ’90s. In her sophomore year, she won the award; actor Denzel Washington presented her with her prize. Buoyed by her success at school and with an eye toward Hollywood, she switched her major to Theater in her junior year, performed in more plays, and graduated in 1993. (Channing, now the Chairman of Warner Bros. Television Group and a TFT Executive Board member, graduated in 1991.)
Since those early days, Dungey has established herself as a respected actress in her favorite medium, with roles in such hit TV series as Alias, The King of Queens, Malcolm in the Middle and Friends, to name a few; her latest series, the horror-comedy Shining Vale, will soon premiere on the Starz network. For her body of work, Dungey is receiving the Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award during the first day of Orientation, Tuesday, Sept. 21, and will be interviewed by one of her favorite TFT faculty members, Theater Professor Michael Hackett.
“We are thrilled that Merrin agreed to be our orientation alumna honoree this year,” says UCLA TFT Interim Dean Brian Kite. “She has always been the real deal. Full of life, talent and professionalism. She is respected by the industry and cheered by her fans. We are proud of all of her accomplishments.”
Dungey’s path to success post-graduation started with her jumping headlong into her professional pursuit, taking on a variety of jobs that gave her flexibility when she had auditions to go to.
“At one point I was Faye Dunaway's personal assistant; then I worked for the president of Warner Bros. and his wife; I also had a waitressing job and another one at Enterprise Rental Cars,” she says. “I put myself in a position where I didn’t fall backward…When I was in college, my parents had been worried about me having a solid job to fall back on. I told them, ‘Look, this will be the time for me to fall forward, for me to be running around with three different jobs.’…I made myself available to every opportunity that was possible.”
Dungey says that her first “real job” ended up on the cutting-room floor — a small part in the 1995 film How to Make an American Quilt (“It was one line but I was thrilled,” she recalls). Over the next five years, however, the jobs started coming, with guest roles in Martin, Caroline in the City, ER, Murphy Brown, The West Wing and Seinfeld, among others. Her big break came in 1999, when she auditioned for The King of Queens on the Sony lot in Culver City.
“As it happened, I was delivering food for the Zone Diet there,” she says. “I quickly dropped them off and ran to the audition room. I said to the girls who were waiting for their turns, ‘Listen, I'm in a 15-minute delivery zone. Does anybody care if I go next?’ They all said I could go — and then I got the part!” Dungey played Kelly Palmer, the wife of Doug Heffernan’s (Kevin James) best friend Deacon (Victor Williams) in 40 episodes during the show’s nine-season run.
In time, one job led to another, and there came a point in which she simultaneously had recurring roles on King of Queens, Malcolm in the Middle and Grosse Pointe.
“I was able to quit all my day jobs and just say, ‘alright, let’s do this,’” she recalls.
After nearly 30 years in Hollywood, things have changed for Dungey. “The best part is, I don't always have to audition now, I get offers,” she notes. Because the TV landscape has gotten more diverse, she says that her work prospects as an African American woman have increased tenfold.
“It really used to be that there was one person of color in a show,” she says, “and when I got a role, I often played the best friend/sidekick gal, and while that still happens, the projects that are available now are more varied.” In Shining Vale, for example, a horror-comedy about a woman's (Courteney Cox) descent into madness in a house that appears to be haunted, Dungey plays Cox’s best friend and editor. The strength of the script made it clear that the role was a substantial one.
“I can't wait for everyone to see it because it’s delicious and interesting and weird,” she says. “Sometimes you take the best friend part because the project is so good.”
As Hollywood film stars turn in greater numbers these days to perform on television, Dungey finds herself acting opposite the industry’s biggest names such as Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern in HBO’s Big Little Lies, Jane Fonda in Netflix’s Grace and Frankie and Sir Patrick Stewart in the Paramount+ series Star Trek: Picard.
“I’m so happy that I’m in this place in my career where I get to work with these legends,” she says. “I have entered this wonderful chapter of holding my own with these people!”
Dungey credits her UCLA education with preparing her for many facets of working in Hollywood.
“I loved that we had to learn everything at UCLA TFT,” she says. “We had to learn how to do lighting, screenwriting, costuming, set design. It gave us an enormous appreciation for the whole picture of what it takes to do a production. Performing on stage is such a foundational thing and God knows it really helped me with doing sitcoms because I learned how to perform to an audience.”
As she reflects on her ever-evolving career and what she has learned in her time in the biz, Dungey has some words of wisdom for up-and-coming TFT acting students:
- Identify your why. “People need to ask themselves, ‘Why do you want to do this job?’ because there are many other ways to make money. If you want to be famous, go get a YouTube channel. That’s not acting at all. To be an actor, you have to love the process.”
- Be prepared to wait. “Being on set is a lot of waiting around. Bring stuff to do! My good friend who works in radio has a job that’s all down to minutes and seconds. He said to me, 'I don't understand how you were brought in at 10:30 a.m. and now it’s 4:00 p.m. and you still haven't gone on set.’ I told him, ‘That’s just part of the gig!’”
- Take more classes. Even after your university experience, it’s important to keep your skills fresh.
- Dress the part. Sort of. When you’re auditioning, wear something that will allow the casting director to visualize you in the role. “I’m not saying you need to dress like a nurse, if that’s what the role is,” she says, “but what you don’t want to wear to that audition is a big, fancy dress.”
- Trust your gut. If a role feels (or doesn’t feel) right, you’re probably right. “Being an actor is very much a life of intuition and trusting your gut,” she says. When contemplating whether to take a role, remember, “Whatever stands out for you is the thing for you.”
- Take chances. “I was asked to become a series regular on King of Queens in its fourth season but I decided not to do it. I had to think long and hard about it, because I was potentially turning down a lot of money. But a month later, I got Alias, which was the lynchpin to so many other opportunities. Because of that show, I got a straight offer to do Once Upon a Time, which also led to other things.”
- Don’t sweat it if you don’t get the job. “Every job isn't yours. I read for the role of Karen Walker on Will & Grace. Thank God that wasn't me. Megan Mullally is a genius! We’re not meant to do all of the things. If this is truly what you’re meant to do, the right role will find you.”
- Stay grateful. “One of the biggest keys to my personal success in this industry has been being grateful for the work and saying thank you, whether it’s saying thank you for an audition, or, after getting an actual job, sending flowers or a muffin basket,” she says. “Half the job is getting along with people, so make sure to show your appreciation.”
- Remember the crew. “Treat your crew like gold because it makes a difference. You might be No. 1 on the call sheet but be grateful for every one of the below-the-line people who showed up on set. They were there before you, setting up, and will be there long after you’ve left for the day.”
- Make sure you have a life outside of Hollywood. “Don’t do this to the bitter end, forsaking all else and as a result, you end up not having a life or things that make you happy.”
Scenes from a Career: (from middle top) Dungey with Meryl Streep in HBO's Big Little Lies;
in the upcoming Shining Vale; with the cast of ABC's Alias. Photos courtesy of Merrin Dungey
Posted: September 20, 2021